Learning to Surf the Big Waves

Now, as the climate movement accelerates, we must learn from previous social upheavals. Many of the organizers who will make the world-shaking marches of next year and the year after cut their organizing teeth by bringing their friends to antiwar marches. The technology of the interactive Internet is maturing, and more people than ever know how to use it. The climate movement contains actors more diverse than even the global justice movement, and the lessons of creating cooperative structures that allow for different groups to work productively towards similar goals will be imperative. There is no better example of this than Step It Up, the National Day of Climate Action scheduled for April 14, 2007. The insight of the leaders of Step It Up (Bill McKibben and several recent graduates of Middlebury College) was that the 'March on Washington' model was passé. Their collective mobilization has been decentralized, with their website, www.stepitup2007.org, acting as an organizing hub for a range of diverse groups—including environmentalists in the Adirondacks and the women of the Alpha Phi Sorority at the University of Texas.

We would do well to note, too, which was more effective, the antiglob-alization movement or the antiwar movement. Because of its multifront approach and its willingness to be truly disruptive, the global justice movement shattered a monumental piece of conventional wisdom. The antiwar movement, which dismissed disruption in a bid to attract a broad swath of the middle class, was brushed aside politically even as it made history. Of course, circumstances such as the national mood should be taken into account, but the contrast is certainly informative.

The immediate lesson is that disruptive militancy has a very straightforward, pragmatic role. In a situation such as we face with climate change, where severe consequences are potentially only decades away, we must make those in power uncomfortable enough so that they act now; we must create consequences in the present. Disruptive protests, when situated in a rich, constructive framework of other organizing, have the capacity to do that.

The deeper lesson, though, is that when we talk about "diverse actors," we must truly embrace diverse activities. A direct action collective will not see eye to eye with a green investment house, but we must set up a framework, such as nonhiearchal councils of speakers, that allows communication and cooperation as much as possible. In addition to its own direct effect on the situation, radicalism in the streets brings attention to the ideas of moderate intellectuals and makes lobbying groups look more reasonable. Climate rebels can enhance the work of climate reformers, and vice versa.

These recent movements are the kindling of a coming fire. The embers of experience, technology, and passion are smoldering, waiting for the right conditions. Movements, like fires, rarely have a defined structure or shape. The growing climate movement has little hierarchy, little superimposed structure, and few set boundaries. Although it has been seeded by previous movements, it is still very new and largely undefined. Although we talk of social movement theory and although it may be applicable, there is no guarantee that this emerging movement will follow any pattern or rules that it, in theory, should. It could surprise us all.

A snapshot of the current climate movement shows many promising things. It shows a young, vibrant set of actors with seemingly boundless energy. Clean energy is the buzzword on college and university campuses across the country and around the world. The problem and solutions are being studied, taught, debated, and addressed at many institutions, and many more are recognizing that now is the time to jump into the melee. The Campus Climate Challenge, which advocates a carbon neutral stance for all educational institutions, is active on more than four hundred campuses nationwide. The group is a framework, providing organizing materials and other resources for diverse student groups, bringing them into the national dialogue. Already one school, the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, has taken the plunge into carbon neutrality, and great strides are being made at institutions with great intellectual clout. Students, the vanguard of any social change, are mov ing. The same snapshot also shows a diverse set of actors, although not necessarily in a racial or cultural sense. The diversity seen in the climate movement is a diversity of backgrounds, politics, and ideas as well as gender and age. There are scientists, environmentalists, economists, and students, of course, but also parents, politicians, pastors, business leaders, and even insurance companies asking the same questions and signing some of the same documents. These networks are not yet linked, though, and we have yet to see a coordinated national action of any import. Some strides are being made by umbrella groups such as Energy Action, a collaboration of more than thirty student environmental networks, and the environmentally and labor-backed Apollo Alliance. A national mobilization such as the Seattle WTO protests or the February 15, 2003, antiwar marches would be a powerful catalyst for widespread communication and cooperation and could leave in its wake a more fully realized climate movement.

Not everyone in this movement is ready to shut down a city, but everyone is increasingly concerned about the effects of uncontained climate change and increasingly willing to work together. This movement is not a single-issue group, and its concerns are not distant; if anything, they are too close to home. The fundamental nature of the problem means that everyone has a stake in its successful solution. This mutual interest is a large part of why the climate movement has a good chance of succeeding.

It appears as though the climate movement will continue to grow most visibly at the local level, with more campuses, businesses, and communities reconfiguring their energy systems and developing new energy sources. Although localism is a rational response to this ultimate crisis of globalization, many of the systems in which we are enmeshed are national and global in scale. As challenging as it may be, we must leverage local action into national and international power.

In the end, a movement may not be an appropriate way of describing the form our response to climate change will, or could, take. Movements, like fires or floods, can sweep through an area, superficially altering the prevailing feeling for a time but leaving the roots of the problem intact and allowing the problem to regrow over time. Climate change is not a problem we want our children and grandchildren to have to tackle.

We need a climate movement whose goal is not only to enact a set of policies, but also to enable a new way of seeing our place in the world. Even more than we need carbon trading, we need to create a paradigm shift in which sustainability is the fundamental variable in the calculus of our everyday lives. We—the people of the United States and all people of the world—need to fully understand and accept the limits we face as a species that relies on a finite, physical world.

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